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50 Years Later

August 26, 2013

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By Terri Lee Freeman, President

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic and important March on Washington, we often forget the core purpose of the event. While many remember this march for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, the march was intended to shine a light on increasing domestic poverty, lack of opportunity for certain citizens, and the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that was being denied to “Negroes” in this country.  Fast forward to August 2013 and I have to ask where we stand with regard to poverty, opportunity, civil rights, and justice for all as we celebrate this anniversary?  And what is the role of philanthropy?

While there has certainly been much progress – and much that Dr. King would be proud of – we still have a very long way to go.  The overt racism that was “Jim Crow” exists no more, but the daily covert “ism’s” that persist are concerning.  It’s hard to look at the growing income inequality in this region, much less our country, and not notice how it breaks down across racial lines.  If we take a look at our juvenile justice system and our penal institutions once again we will find a predominantly minority captive audience. Public school systems in our region, with few exceptions, are majority minority.  And most of those majority minority schools have significant numbers of students receiving free and reduced meals (FARMs).  In the District of Columbia, the land mass that is occupied by poor people has decreased significantly, but the gap in income, access, and opportunity has grown.  Poverty in suburban communities in our region is growing as those communities become more racially and ethnically diverse. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the focus on expanding civil rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) communities, a positive step in our recent history.  But it is sad to witness the roll-back of certain elements of the Voting Rights Act at the same time.

In 1963, people marched to shine a light on poverty, opportunity and civil rights.  And philanthropy has responded.  The most recent edition of the “Giving USA” states that $316.23 billion was contributed by individuals to nonprofit organizations in 2012. We’ve generously funded thousands of “programs” that seek to mitigate the symptoms of poverty – feeding programs, recreation, shelter, and social services.  All of these programs have laudable missions – they all seek to help those that need help.  But has philanthropy, as we’ve known it, really helped move the needle?  It seems to me that our job is far larger than simply funding our particular pet project, but it includes taking a look at how that pet project fits within the broader scheme of the social improvements we hope to impact as philanthropists. 

I sincerely believe the beauty of the American philanthropic movement is that it is so deeply personal – we get to choose. However, as responsible contributors to community with a desire to make a difference (hopefully) we should be making informed decisions that are bold with an intention of moving that proverbial needle.  Which brings me back to 50 years of effort and money distributed to help decrease, if not eradicate, poverty.  What does it say about our efforts when poverty today often means working adults, some with multiple jobs, can’t make ends meet?  When a salary of $60,000 barely gets you and your family a place to call home, in a neighborhood with access to fresh food, quality schools, and recreation facilities?  When being poor is no longer simply a statement of your socio-economic status, but a statement of your very being and existence?  I think it says we need to work a lot harder to use philanthropy to help those who need it the most. Not simply by funding individual projects and programs, but by also working to change the social service delivery systems that touch real people’s lives through the funding of advocacy and public policy.  We must get out of our comfort zones, both literally and figuratively, to find out where the biggest bang for our buck will be.  We must work collaboratively and realize no one person has the answer regardless of how persuasive they may be, but the collective work of many will get us far closer to the reality we want to exist.  And, we must take more risks and step out on the possibility of what might work.  We need to eliminate the phrase “we’ve tried that before” and focus more on continually improving the ideas that demonstrate some spark of success.

Fifty years and we are still largely fighting the same fight.  But are we really in the ring fighting, or are we simply standing in front of a mirror shadow boxing?  I don’t know the answer, but I do know that for us to see a different result in the next fifty years, we need to fully dedicate ourselves to being the change we want to see, and hold ourselves accountable for making sure the narrative at the 100th anniversary of the March on Washington is different.

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